It is a truth universally acknowledged (among teachers) that when you have taught a particular curriculum for a number of years it tends to stultify, even though one of the pleasures of teaching lies in the fact that nothing is ever quite the same two years running, because the children are endlessly variable. But because you are always busy with papers to grade and records to keep and the minutiae of classroom management, you tend to use the same materials and books and perhaps the same old tried-and-true approach.
So it has been for me with Social Studies, in my 4th grade classroom. At our school this subject takes a back seat to heavy emphasis on Language Arts and Math, with Music as a major subject taking up quite a few periods each week. And so I confess I have taken the easy way out for several seasons now. We are provided with A Book. I have stuck to The Book.
But this past school year, a delightful experience in playwriting, stimulated by the Yale Children’s Dramat’s contest for elementary school playwrites, has given me the wish to try it again (my young writers won three of the prizes)—but this time, to use plays in a different way—to use theater arts in general, and playwriting as well, to make my tired Social Studies unit “come alive.” I should be able to cover the necessary concepts, and to practice teaching an integrated day at the same time, something I aim at but don’t always manage too well. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an integrated day is one in which your subjects—reading, writing, spelling, math, etc.—all revolve around one theme. Each subject becomes an aspect of the major theme you have chosen to emphasize that day.
So, for two days a week, I will turn my classroom into a “drama lab.” We will use plays—their writing, production aspects, and auxiliary needs—to cover all our subjects. I’m sure we’ll have fun in the process.
Fourth Grade Social Studies units emphasize man in his environment, and how this influences the development of cultures. For this unit I have chosen Ancient Egypt, a hot dry land, but a true river culture, dominated by the mighty Nile. The annual flooding, with its miraculous enrichment of the soil, leads indomitably toward the rise of its politics, religion mythology, and economic structure. This beautiful materials now available, from coloring books to mythological tomes. Yale’s handsome Egyptian collection is close by, and we could have a super-climactic trip to the stunning display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, with the added plum of lunch in the shadow of “Cleopatra’s Needle,” a beautiful obelisk somehow filched from Egypt in the 1890’s and set up to beautify Central Park in the area near the Museum. And of course, we have evidence (which students could visit) of the fascination Egyptian architecture had for a much earlier generation: the cemetery gate on Grove Street, which is a copy of the Temple of Karnak, complete with symbols about the afterlife.
The approach I wish to try would, of course, work equally well with other cultures—Native Americans, perhaps, or a cargo in the mountains of South America, if that were preferred. I chose Egypt because we can read their writing, and there are so many beautiful pictures of their life and arts, and because I have found with previous classes that they are profoundly interested in the Egyptian preoccupation with the afterlife and its mortuary customs, perhaps for the same reason that they like horror movies.
So why choose the dramatic arts? Because they can make long-dead people real, and increase understanding of their culture and the many influences that made it what it was. Besides, it lends itself so well to cross-curriculum activities of all kinds—like Reading, Writing, Spelling, research, editing, criticism, and maybe even Math. And of course, kids love any activity where at times they can push back the desks and become someone else for awhile.
Here, then, is a list of my objectives:
1. To understand, through role playing techniques, the culture of another people, and how it might evolve because of geographic and environmental features.
2. To increase and enrich language skills of creating, writing, editing and spelling.
3. To increase research skills.
4. To advance class knowledge of history.
5. To enlarge student knowledge of playwriting and play production conventions.
6. To allow class to learn, understand and enjoy related theater arts, such as costume and scenery design, as well as the art of acting.
7. To increase my own skill in tying in classroom work to a central objective, using a unified day approach to my Social Studies objectives, making possible a more flexible and lively use of class time.
8. To make my Social Studies curriculum come alive—at last!